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Classic Coming Attractions by Barrie Maxwell

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

Western Round-Up and New Announcements

Reflecting the fact that the spring is the time of year when westerns seem to get released on DVD most prolifically, this edition of Classic Coming Attractions devotes itself virtually exclusively to western titles. I begin with a short overview of the popular B western series The Three Mesquiteers and the films' availability on DVD including reviews of the eleven double feature discs available from VCI. I then have a number of reviews of other western DVD releases including: from Fox - Fox Western Classics (The Gunfighter/Rawhide/Garden of Evil) and The Big Trail; from Universal - James Stewart: The Western Collection; from VCI - The Phantom Empire and Cisco Kid Western Triple Feature; from Hermitage Hill - The Scarlet Horseman; from Warner Bros. - Tom Selleck Western Collection and The New Maverick; from Sony - The Shadow Riders; and from Paramount - The Wild Wild West: Fourth Season, Rawhide: The Third Season: Volume 1, and Gunsmoke: The Second Season, Volume 2. I had hoped to include coverage of MGM's seven western releases this month, but they didn't arrive in time. Assuming they do show up, they'll be covered in my next Classic Coming Attractions column. Finally, the column wraps up with news of several recent westerns coming to DVD as well as the usual section on new classic announcements in general. I hope you enjoy it all.

The Three Mesquiteers

One of the longest lasting and most enjoyable of B western series was The Three Mesquiteers. Seemingly inspired by the character idea of Dumas's "The Three Musketeers", The Three Mesquiteers was a trio of western heroes created by writer William Cold MacDonald and featured in several novels written by him in the 1930s, the first one being "Law of the .45s" published in 1933. Several film adaptations of MacDonald's work appeared in the middle of that decade, including Law of the .45s (1935, with Guinn Big Boy Williams and Al St. John, on DVD from Quality Information Publishers) and RKO's Powdersmoke Range - a 1935 western featuring many of the best-known B western stars of the time (Harry Carey, Hoot Gibson, Guinn Big Boy Williams, Tom Tyler, and Bob Steele). It's a really entertaining outing well worth seeking out on TCM; I haven't run across a copy on DVD so far, but it is worth keeping an eye on the offerings of the more offbeat providers such as Sinister Cinema, Alpha, Movies Unlimited, or others to see if it shows up.

The Three Mesquiteers as most B western fans remember them, however, first appeared in 1936 courtesy of the newly formed Republic Pictures. From 1936 to 1943, the studio would produce 51 Mesquiteer films using a variety of actors in the principal roles. The three actors that are most fondly associated with the series are Bob Livingston (as Stony Brooke), Ray Corrigan (as Tucson Smith), and Max Terhune (as Lullaby Joslin), and they appeared together in 14 of the earliest entries from 1936-1937. Titles such as Riders of the Whistling Skull, Gunsmoke Ranch, The Purple Vigilantes, and Outlaws of Sonora are some of the best of this bunch.

The second most identified set of Mesquiteer films comprises 8 titles that John Wayne starred in as Stony Brooke during 1938-1939 before his appearance in Stagecoach broke him out of the B film mold for good. Ray Corrigan continued as Tucson in all of these films while Max Terhune portrayed Lullaby in the first 6 of them before being replaced by Raymond Hatton for the last two. Some of the key titles in this set are Pals of the Saddle, Santa Fe Stampede, The Night Riders, and Wyoming Outlaw.

The final four years of the Mesquiteer films were characterized by several different combinations of actors. Bob Livingston returned for the next 14 films in 1939-1941, paired with Duncan Renaldo and Raymond Hatton for the first 7 and with Bob Steele and Rufe Davis for the others. Livingston then left and was replaced by Tom Tyler for the next 7 films in 1941-1942. Finally Davis was then replaced by Jimmy Dodd. Steele, Tyler, and Dodd thus formed the last trio to play the Three Mesquiteers for Republic, appearing in 6 films in 1942-1943. By 1943, Republic felt that the Mesquiteer films had run out of steam and cancelled further production, preferring to concentrate on its other B western series of the time starring Roy Rogers, Wild Bill Elliott, and Don "Red" Barry.

The pleasure of the Mesquiteer films derives from many things - the on-screen chemistry between the various players, Republic's typically slick production values for its B western product, and plots that were a cut above Republic's usual standard, at least in the series' early years. While many of the stories were standard western tales, in some, the juxtaposition of old West settings with more modern trappings such as cars and planes, and even introducing wartime issues, was appealing.

The Three Mesquiteer westerns are now owned by Paramount by virtue of its control of the Republic catalogue and it holds the best original source material that exists for any of the films. At present, Paramount has licensed the bulk of the Republic catalogue to Lionsgate so that the latter would be responsible for any official DVD releases. The Mesquiteer westerns appear to be in the public domain, however, so a number of companies have made various titles available mainly using 16mm prints as source material for their video transfers. As one might imagine, the quality of the resulting DVDs or DVD-Rs is rather variable.

The following table indicates DVD availability to my knowledge of the Republic Three Mesquiteer films, although I make no claim for completeness as many of the public domain specialists that I've not had the time to investigate may have titles available. Notably only one of the John Wayne Mesquiteer films is available (through Lionsgate in a decent transfer) suggesting that the public domain companies don't seem to want to touch them, with perhaps copyright remaining active on them. Paramount has done some restoration work on the films and even went so far as to announce a planned release of several of the titles a few years ago. Unfortunately nothing came of this and as mentioned, Paramount licensed the titles back to Lionsgate who have predictably done nothing with them so far.

Title Year Stars DVD?
The Three Mesquiteers 1936 Bob Livingston, Ray Corrigan, Syd Saylor VCI (Vol. 3)
Ghost Town Gold 1936 Livingston, Corrigan, Max Terhune VCI (Vol. 1), Alpha
Roarin’ Lead 1936 " VCI (Vol. 3), Alpha
Riders of the Whistling Skull 1937 " VCI (vol. 6), Alpha, Sinister Cinema
Hit the Saddle 1937 " VCI (Vol. 2), Alpha
Gunsmoke Ranch 1937 " Alpha, Quality Information Publishers
Come On, Cowboys! 1937 " VCI (Vol. 1), Alpha
Range Defenders 1937 " Alpha
Heart of the Rockies 1937 " VCI (Vol. 2), Alpha
Wild Horse Rodeo 1937 " Alpha
The Trigger Trio 1937 Corrigan, Terhune, Ralph Byrd N/A
The Purple Vigilantes 1938 Livingston, Corrigan, Terhune VCI (Vol. 4), Alpha
Call the Mesquiteers 1938 " VCI (Vol. 6), Alpha, Sinister Cinema
Outlaws of Sonora 1938 " VCI (Vol. 5), Alpha, Sinister Cinema
Riders of the Black Hills 1938 " N/A
Heroes of the Hills 1938 " N/A
Pals of the Saddle 1938 John Wayne, Corrigan, Terhune N/A
Overland Stage Raiders 1938 " N/A
Santa Fe Stampede 1938 " Lionsgate (Artisan)
Red River Range 1938 " N/A
The Night Riders 1939 " N/A
Three Texas Steers 1939 " N/A
Wyoming Outlaw 1939 Wayne, Corrigan, Raymond Hatton N/A
New Frontier 1939 " N/A
The Kansas Terrors 1939 Livingston, Duncan Renaldo, Hatton VCI (Vol. 10)
Cowboys from Texas 1939 " N/A
Heroes of the Saddle 1940 " VCI (Vol. 10)
Pioneers of the West 1940 " VCI (Vol. 7)
Covered Wagon Days 1940 " N/A
Rocky Mountain Rangers 1940 " N/A
Oklahoma Renegades 1940 " VCI (Vol. 8)
Under Texas Skies 1940 Livingston, Bob Steele, Rufe Davis N/A
The Trail Blazers 1940 " N/A
Lone Star Raiders 1940 " N/A
Prairie Pioneers 1941 " VCI (Vol. 4)
Pals of the Pecos 1941 " N/A
Saddlemates 1941 " N/A
Gangs of Sonora 1941 " VCI (Vol. 7)
Outlaws of Cherokee Trail 1941 Steele, Tom Tyler, Davis VCI (Vol. 9)
Gauchos of El Dorado 1941 " VCI (Vol. 9)
West of Cimarron 1941 " VCI (Vol. 5)
Code of the Outlaw 1942 " VCI (Vol. 8)
Raiders of the Range 1942 " N/A
Westward Ho 1942 " N/A
The Phantom Plainsmen 1942 " N/A
Shadows on the Sage 1942 Steele, Tyler, Jimmy Dodd VCI (Vol. 11)
Valley of Hunted Men 1942 " N/A
Thundering Trails 1943 " N/A
The Blocked Trail 1943 " N/A
Santa Fe Scouts 1943 " N/A
Riders of the Rio Grande 1943 " VCI (Vol. 11)

I've not seen any of the Alpha or Sinister Cinema releases, but I do have the eleven VCI volumes for evaluation. These are DVD-R releases derived from 16mm source prints, most of which have either the later Hollywood Television Service logo or no company logo at the start rather than the original Republic ones. In general, the later volumes (7 to 11) containing the 1940s films offer the better looking images. Scratches and debris are frequently evident, but the images are decently detailed and fairly sharp, particularly on Volume 11 (Riders of the Rio Grande/Shadows on the Sage) and on Volumes 8 and 9 (Code of the Outlaw/Oklahoma Renegades and Gauchos of El Dorado/Outlaws of Cherokee Trail). Both films in Volume 9 have the original Republic clock tower logo. Volume 10 (Heroes of the Saddle/The Kansas Terrors) and Volume 7 (Gangs of Sonora/Pioneers of the West) are a slight cut below these others with The Kansas Terrors exhibiting some obvious contrast issues and Pioneers of the West frequently appearing rather soft. Gangs of Sonora sports the original Republic eagle logo. While any of these later titles offer good entertainment value, the early titles are much the better films for the most part. Unfortunately as replicated on Volumes 1 to 6 they also tend to look poorer on the whole. Scratches and debris are evident in all cases. Particularly disappointing is Volume 6 (Call the Mesquiteers/Riders of the Whistling Skull) which looks quite fuzzy with Riders of the Whistling Skull (which vies to be the very best Mesquiteers film of all) seeming to have a layer of gauze superimposed over the image virtually throughout. Volume 1 (Ghost Town Gold/Come On, Cowboys!) is probably the best looking of the first six volumes, particularly Ghost Town Gold. Volumes 2 and 3 are both mixed offerings. Thus The Three Mesquiteers in Volume 3 looks quite presentable, but Roarin' Lead is somewhat fuzzy while Hit the Saddle in Volume 2 looks good while Heart of the Rockies is somewhat soft. The same trend continues in Volumes 4 and 5 though not quite to the same extent - Prairie Pioneers is slightly better looking than The Purple Vigilantes in Volume 4 while Outlaws of Sonora bests West of Cimarron in Volume 5. The mono sound on all titles is workable. There are plenty of pops and some hiss with the occasional missed line of dialogue due to cuts or splices in the source material. There are generally no supplements on these discs with the exception of Volumes 2 and 3 - the former providing promotional trailers for three B western double bills available from VCI and the latter a theatrical trailer for Allan Rocky Lane's Code of the Silver Sage. The various VCI volumes retail for $10-15 directly from VCI but may be available more cheaply from secondary sellers. With the caveats mentioned above on specific title transfers, they otherwise all offer good B western entertainment. VCI has no new Mesquiteer volumes currently scheduled, but has not ruled out more releases in the future.

As mentioned, I've not had the opportunity to view any of the Alpha releases. I'd be pleased to hear from anyone who has seen Alpha's version of Riders of the Whistling Skull as to whether it might offer an improvement over the VCI one, or of its versions of Range Defenders and Wild Horse Rodeo which don't seem to be available from other distributors.

I'd like to acknowledge as the source for much of my information on The Three Mesquiteers. Much more detailed information on them and any number of other B western topics can be found there. Bob Livingston fans are also directed to a superb book on his life and that of his brother, Jack Randall (also a B western star) - "Brothers of the West" by Merrill T. McCord.

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